Two years after moving to San Francisco in 1980, my writing models changed from Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and Gary Snyder to Aram Saroyan, Edwin Morgan, Seiichi Niikuni, Claus Bremer, Ian Hamilton Finlay and many of the other concrete poets in Emmett Williams’ An Anthology of Concrete Poetry. My focus shifted from poem as vehicle of self-expression to poem as pivot of language potential. Driven less by personal/political agitations, the need to voice my outrage, I dug into the material of language itself, sought out strategies to liberate the visual representations of language — the alphabet, words, letters, parts of letters, the spaces between them — from their confining semantic contexts.
How did I make this jump from Beat to concrete poetry, a poetry I had knocked my head up against for years without an answer? (How in the hell could “lighght” be a poem, Mr. Saroyan?) I didn’t leap blindly: a number of writers served as bridges: Ron Silliman, Bruce Andrews, Lyn Hejinian, Larry Eigner, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge, among others. Robert Grenier, in his book Series, particularly in the section titled “FALL WINTER FAMILY HOME,” provided one of the most direct routes into an understanding of concrete poetry. Grenier’s work led me to word level, the seemingly inscrutable substances of individual words, a mind-boggling place for a reader and writer oriented toward ”larger” discourses such as poems, stories, novels, and essays. I rarely studied words for their own sakes, interested in them as parts subservient to the whole. Words were right when they enhanced the larger picture.
But Grenier showed what can be done with words themselves by themselves. They were not so minuscule anymore, no longer simple cogs in a complex machine. They had their own formidable powers, their own energies. They could stand out on their own. Words unshackled from oppressive contexts, a poem such as JOY maple apple frees readers to bring their infinitely varied experiences with “maple” and “apple” into play, or to create new experiences in the reading. If Grenier would have written the poem as ”JOY//red maple//apple blossom,” or something similar in which the meanings of words were more inextricably bound to other words, possible paths of meaning would be truncated. Autumn and spring, two distinct seasons suggested by the adjectives, would have to figure into the equation. Without those constraining modifiers, readers shape their ”maple” and “apple” into the trees, syrups, fruits or whatever else they want to construct and experience. The title, of course, channels meaning by delineating an overarching emotion for the poem — joy — but as a subjective state, tied into “mapleness” or ”appleness,” numerous readings can still be generated. Because Grenier chooses to deploy so few words in many of the poems in Series, he’s taking more risks with each word choice. The fewer words, the more significance each choice carries. A poem such as BLINKING LIGHTS wooden spoons opens itself to myriad readings (or mis-readings, for that matter), not something many writers would want to happen to their work.
Grenier has the nerve to let words and readers do as much of the work on their own as they can. With fewer verbal constraints, many of the poems bubble with a spontaneity rare in poetry. For example: PAINTINGS lamb stew The combinations of words seem incongruous yet natural, impossible yet unpremeditated. Aware of ”painters” who use non-paint materials on canvas (blood, bodily wastes, nail polish, food) — lamb stew could very easily describe a set of paintings -- I can’t help but belly-laugh at the poem. I was initially perplexed by the poems consisting only of titles, words comprised of all capitalized letters: DEVOTION, FINN POWER, SNOW TIRES, LIES, CLAPBOARDS, THROUGH THE SPACE BETWEEN. I couldn’t think of any context in which these words would stand comfortably by themselves (except FINN POWER, they’d all make weird graffiti or bumper stickers), but in the context of a book of poetry, they were especially disconcerting.
I decided then that they were poems intended to throw the context of poetry itself into question. How are these poems? (How is anything a poem?) You can’t take anything for granted. The more I thought, the more I was intrigued by this section of Series. These poems were stripped down; words stood exposed; the poet’s voice muted, virtually absent, the strategy shifted weight from authorial personality to the character of words themselves. Grenier accomplished a lot of different things in Series, but one that influenced my writing was his ability to let individual words assert themselves. Once I grew accustomed to looking at language microscopically, I only had to take a short step to understand concrete poetry. When I again leafed through the Williams’ anthology, the poems were not so esoteric. I sought out books by those poets and found Aram Saroyan’s delightful Pages. I was struck by similarities between Grenier and Saroyan. (I wondered if Grenier knew Saroyan’s work, or if Saroyan knew Grenier’s work.) Grenier could have written any one of the following Saroyan poems: Not a cricket ticks a clock * something moving in the garden a cat * incomprehensible birds * night so daylight * However Saroyan came to make decisions similar to Grenier’s, or at least arrive at similar results, he clearly was also a master of poems with few words, as were many other concrete poets. Concrete poetry, or visual poetry as it is known by its contemporary practitioners, is particularly trenchant in its investigations into the bodies of words, continuing to manifest what the words have always known.
Grenier bridged my writing and reading from Beat poetry to visual poetry. I wonder now where his scrawl writings, perhaps the most intriguing visual poetry now being produced, will take writers and readers in the future. I’ll be learning from them, wherever they go.